Sculptor Sarah Sze’s current exhibition at Tanya Bonakdar continues the artist’s now-recognizably distinctive thematic concerns and media practices. This solo exhibition also marks Sze’s first major gallery show in the United States since representing her native country at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
While the very nature of Sze’s work – namely installations consisting of both minutely controlled and improvised arrangements of everyday things – has an innate ability to challenge summation, there are encompassing thematic concerns that can be identified. These subjective readings are aided by Sze’s somewhat uncommon but welcome receptiveness for discussing meaning in relation to her work.
Although Sze utilises all manner of ‘things’ in her practice, ranging from inanimate objects, to food and plant life, most can be concentrated under the category of materials and tools for hands-on creative endeavors from art-making to carpentry, to design, construction, and even home improvement and gardening. Physics and its meta-iteration also appear to be one of her chief themes or concerns. The individual ‘creative’ components are arranged into intricately complex assemblage installations, such that issues of the relationships, interactions, and balance between these things come to the fore. Sze’s sculptures ultimately engage, play with, and explode contexts and auras on various levels, beginning with objects themselves – their relationship with one another affected first by arrangement, and second, with the spectator.
As a result of this process, her sculptures produce a variety of readily available meanings including impressions of moments in time manifested by traces of human activity – or agency, whether rational or irrational, bygone or ongoing. They investigate the very cycle of the production of meaning as generated in the encounter between people and things, and also culture itself in its contemporary condition. All of this involves a great deal of curatorial ‘rendering,’ which Sze indeed does much of, as her sculptures or installation pieces often resemble models or feel akin to the work of production design in films to achieve ‘scenes’ and atmosphere.
This is immediately apparent in the largest room of the Bonakdar gallery, which houses either the largest number of installation pieces or the largest installation piece in the exhibition – it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Although life-size, the assortment of ladders, paint buckets, wooden planks, torn up photographs, splatterings of paint, newspapers, drills, brushes, tape rolls, mirrors, rocks and more, at times feels toy-like, resulting from the perceptual trick of stumbling into an art studio, a workshop, a home improvement project, and none of these within an art gallery. Beyond, a projection of a bird flapping its wings flying in the air, and another of an evocative email discussing perception, as well as a drawing desk littered with seemingly random things – lamps illuminating obscure photographic images, a globe-type stand, a plant – represent a more open-ended and cryptic side of Sze’s offerings.
Upstairs, another table supports a network of wire box frames and glass which house fruit, water bottles, cans, strips of paper, rocks, and toilet paper, while projections of hard-to-make-out animations and a time tracker of the real-time distance between Earth and the NASA Voyager 1 spacecraft provide the only light available in the darkened room. In an adjacent space, an installation that resembles both a hammock and a machine of manual textile-making has caught drips of paint that have pierced through the open spaces of its threads, and have accumulated and dried below, recalling, in part, Sze’s Venice Biennale installation. Through the exhibition spaces, the running motifs of vacant walls prepared for or following painting activities, and large smoothed pebbles sliced in two that inhabit vacant corners, are found, and evoke impressions of occupied space and time, and juxtapositions between the natural and improvisational, the artificial and controlled.
Placed at stake in Sze’s works are the very meanings and definitions of our culture, and the experience of space-time, moments, or ‘scenes.’ Yet, if such an investigation threatens to disrupt such comfortable or dormant ideas and concepts constitutive of the human condition, a profoundly human essence is ever-present. It is interesting to so strongly feel the trace of human life in a space, only to then recognize our own presence within these environments that Sze conjures up. We lose and then find ourselves all over again.